Kitty Thompson loves the idea of anniversary-driven celebrations of Shakespeare. But she doesn’t exactly rely on them to jolt her own passion. In fact, that passion pulsates through her veins every day.
“I have no room for mediocrity in terms of commitment to this text,” Thompson says. “I really get excited about it.”
That commitment extends throughout her more than 25 years as an actress at The Orpheum, The Magic, Marin Theatre Company, San Francisco Playhouse, Pacific Repertory Theatre, San Francisco Shakespeare Festival, California Shakespeare Theatre and Marin Shakespeare Company.
Thompson’s time and dedication in recent years have been increasingly dominated by her desire to pass along that love and commitment to kids, using Shakespeare’s text as a vehicle for students to develop their self esteem, multicultural empathy, emotional authenticity, and in finding a richness in human capacity and imagination.
In 2014, three years after she moved with her family from Bernal Heights in San Francisco to Mill Valley, Thompson made that effort official, turning her Shakespearience concept of after-school programs and summer camps into a fully formed nonprofit entity.
Thompson, a Bay Area native who “grew up under (American Conservatory Theatre founder) Bill Ball,” who served as her mentor for many years, fell in love with Shakespeare at the very young age of five.
“I made it my focus as a very young actress,” she says.
The idea for Shakespearience first germinated at her son’s school, St. Finn Barr School in San Francisco, where the principal asked her to create a drama program. “I said, ‘Absolutely not – but I will run a Shakespeare program for you,’” she says. “Theater programs can get really hokey really fast.”
Thompson’s passion for Shakespeare took root at St. Finn Bart School, so when the family moved to Mill Valley in 2011, she found out that Mill Valley MIddle School was looking for a new Shakespeare program.
Fast forward to 2018, and Shakespearience continues to work with both of those schools on inter-curricular programs, as well as Old Mill School and several others in San Francisco, Berkeley and elsewhere in Marin.
Thompson and her team, which also includes lead teachers Derek Fischer and Trish Tillman as well as Director of Combat Danielle O’Dea, also run after-school programs and summer camps at places like the Almonte Clubhouse and in Old Mill Park. And as the after-school program moniker “Swords, Scenes and Soliloquies!” indicates, Shakespearience’s programs to not shy away from the Bard’s love of swordplay, using “age-appropriate stage combat (hand to hand, rapier, broadsword) in concert with Shakespeare’s text” to “learn movement and dialogue, and benefit greatly by observing one another’s scenes and physicality.”
“Kids get so into the text,” Thompson says. “And if you get to do the text and do a broadsword fight, you’re going to absolutely love Shakespeare – no doubt about it.”
Thompson hopes to take Shakespearience into other channels as well, particularly for children on the autism spectrum and those living in impoverished neighborhoods. That includes launching a pilot program this summer in Mill Valley for special education students.
“I want to reach all types of kids with these powerful tools we have,” she says.
Thompson has stepped back a bit from her acting career of late to focus her attention on Shakespearience.
“This has taken on such great import to me that I don’t want to do anything but it,” she says. “It is so fulfilling to watch these kids take the text and own it and bend and tweak it. It ascends their self esteem and lets them feel eloquent and lets them have credence and allows them to be visceral and kinesthetic. But it is all just so very fun.”